Compete with yourself, not with others: Eddie Perfect on the measure of success and productivity

In our latest Stage Door Shrink session, Rachel Cole and Eddie Perfect discuss the abstract notion of success, productivity and the balance between them in an artistic environment.

If you’re anything like me, you get through the first dance call of an audition and start to think you’re more #bookedandblessed than Patti LuPone. This is not a The Secret style exercise of manifesting my future, but simply getting ahead of myself and looking up AirBnB options in Brisbane, 18 months out from a job I don’t have.

Eddie Perfect. Image by Julian Kingma
Eddie Perfect. Image by Julian Kingma

The topic itself begs the question, how does one even define ‘success’? This answer will (and should be) different for every person. In performing, success and fame can hit overnight. So it’s good to take a minute and think about how you personally define success, and what kind of person you’d like to be if and when it happens. Otherwise, how will you know when you arrive? It also ensures you work towards your vision of success and not society’s or someone else’s. For me, I want to be excited by my work and married to a man of questionable sexuality like Alan Cumming or Jamie Durie…

A chat with Eddie Perfect

Eddie Perfect is best publicly known for playing Mick Holland on Offspring and as the new judge on Australia’s Got Talent. To the theatre buffs, he is better known as the writer of Shane Warne the Musical and The Beast, a successful cabaret artist and leading man in shows such as South Pacific. On TV he has appeared in Kath & Kim, Spicks and Specks, Good News Week, Stingers, Blue Heelers, MDA and The Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala. He appeared in Keating The Musical and has released 5 albums. It’s safe to say Eddie has found success on TV, success as a writer, an actor, a singer, a husband and father.

Eddie describes his career as if he’s hacking through virgin rain forest – a completely blind journey where you never know where you’re going to end up. It’s only by looking back at the forest that it seemed to be some sort of logical progression, always hoping at some point in time that there is an intersection of doing the things you love and being paid for them. Here’s some advice on how to keep a level head when everything’s coming up roses.

Success is the wrong goal

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be good at your job, however, success is the wrong thing to focus on. “You have to focus on the work. Success and whatever that means to you flows on from the work. Get passionately obsessed with one particular idea, as Sondheim says, make it the piece that you can stand up the back of the theatre, look at the stage and go, ‘yeah that’s what I meant’.”

Concentrate on getting invited back to the table

Success is always finite. Aim to be invited back to the table, not to win.

“If you compare my career to the Olympics, I always come in bronze. I’m on the podium, but I’m not holding the money up top – it’s just enough to be invited back. If you’re an actor and you keep getting work, that’s great, it’s all you can do.”

Understand this never stops, there is no end point

Success in the arts isn’t something you arrive at, look around, rest and stay there. “I went to a party after school with some high profile actors and I realised there was always someone around who they were jealous of, whose career was better than theirs. I thought, ‘Right I get it, this never stops. You always want to do bigger things’.”

Balance pride with humility

“Pride is a weird one, it’s a personal thing. It’s knowing inside yourself that something is right, it works, has inherent worth and has a motivated meaning behind it. Humility comes from shutting the fuck up about that. So many people don’t give a shit about what we do, and what we do doesn’t matter. My kids don’t care what I do.”

Focus on what you haven’t done yet

High achievers tend to focus more on what they haven’t done than what they have. They look to the future- to the next thing they want to achieve.

“When you’re writing something, you have to have one eye on the long term- how is this going to help me get that next job? That’s important. There is satisfaction within moments, but nobody sits around and goes, hey aren’t we amazing?”

Control what you can, let the rest go

“Think about, what can I control? I can’t control whether an idea resonates with a whole bunch of people, reviews, word of mouth, the weather, or anything like that. What I can control is the writing. Work as hard as you can at that and then make a production that is reflective of what you have in your head. The rest you have to let it go.” In this sense, the success of your work isn’t up to you, so you can’t take full credit.

Eddie Perfect. Image by Julian Kingma
Eddie Perfect. Image by Julian Kingma

Compete with yourself, not others

They say comparison is the root of all discontent, and we’re constantly measuring ourselves against those beside us, below or above us. The best thing to do is to compare yourself to your previous self and see that growth.

“I’m very much running my own race- the things I worry most about are my own discipline and how hard I can work at things- that’s always a good challenge. I’m very interested in trying to be particularly me, not trying to imitate other people’s style, to put up ideas unique and not stress about whether they’re going to fit. Being derivative or trying to second-guess what people want is a short cut to disaster.”

Appreciate the journey – delayed success is good

“There isn’t anyone who would argue against delayed success. A steady progression is much better than instant success. The danger is, you could be thrust into opportunities before you’re ready to capitalise on them.

One of the worst things success does is, it creates an expectation of what it is you’re supposed to make. You get trapped by an audience, and they can dictate what you create, which can completely modify what sort of an artist you might have been if you didn‘t have that sort of success.”

Set big goals – and act on them

“I like having flagpoles in the sand. I don’t really write structured goals because I don’t want to set myself up for failure. I do have a general sense at NYE that I don’t want to look back and think, I didn’t do anything this year.

Two years ago, I had just finished writing a whole bunch of stuff for Strictly Ballroom. The one goal I had was to write Broadway musicals. I didn’t know how to make that happen. So, I just went to New York and London, tapped every contact I could find, had a whole bunch of meetings and found a great agent for my writing. I knew there was a big job going in NY that they didn’t have a composer or lyricist for, and I couldn’t get a look in, so I offered to write 2 songs for free and see if they liked them. They sent me the script, I wrote a couple of songs, and I got the job! That was crazy! Unheard of. It’s a big show. I didn’t have a structured plan, but it’s not a rare dream. I got lucky.”

Give yourself a deadline

“I need a deadline – if I have one, I’m sweet. If I had all the time and money in the world, I would need a fake structure to make myself do it. The best art is not free of deadlines – even Bach had to write a mass every Sunday. Time-pressure creates great art.”

Get some perspective

“We make entertainment, which matters to me. Humility is knowing that it doesn’t matter to everyone else. When someone comes to see a show, it’s a 3-hour block of one day, and you’re not the epicentre of it. You’re just part of a kaleidoscope of their lives.”

Remember- it was not just you!

“From the outside, people will cherry pick people to admire. From the inside, the success of the piece relies completely on the collaboration of the theatre makers. If you have a bad MD, or director, make bad choices, the piece is too long, in the wrong theatre etc. – a million things can go wrong. If it’s successful, it’s because of hundreds of people.”

Take a minute to celebrate

Take a moment to breathe and enjoy it. Remember how many sacrifices it took for you to arrive at this moment.

“My wife and I will have a bottle of champagne if something gets commissioned or we have a job – it’s a very private, quiet thing. We don’t let any pigeons out of a cage to fly around the room or anything.”

Final thought from Rachi…

You should be proud of yourself when you achieve something wonderful. Although, research shows that high achievers are much more focused on what they have not yet achieved, rather than what they have. This is why they’re not constantly singing their own accolades. If you find yourself having achieved your definition of at ‘success’- sit down and rewrite your goals so they’re bigger, brighter and less attainable. Complacency will get you nowhere. This will also shift your focus off yourself and onto something new.

CS Lewis says, ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.’

Rachel Cole

Rachel has a degree in Psychology from The University of Sydney but is currently masquerading as understudy for Miss Honey and Mrs Wormwood in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends. Follow Rachel on Instagram at: @rachelacole.

Rachel Cole

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